A new study shows that the cancer drugs imatinib (also known as Gleevec by Novartis) and sunitinib (Sutent, made by Pfizer) halt diabetes in mice.

A team from the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley-based drug maker Plexxikon found that most of the mice manipulated to have Type 1 diabetes no longer had diabetes symptoms after just a few weeks on either of the two drugs. The researchers, who published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also discovered that daily imitanib treatment delayed when the mice got the disease, if at all. Type 1 diabetes, which usually appears during childhood, is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the pancreas and limits its ability to manufacture insulin, a hormone that helps cells absorb glucose to use as fuel.

Imatibib is used to stop cancer cells from multiplying in leukemia patients, and sunitinib can halt the growth of kidney cancer cells.

When given to mice, the drugs presumably calmed down the animals' over-active immune systems, which then laid off the pancreas.

Jeffrey Bluestone, an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco who led the research, told ScientificAmerican.com that the therapy might not necessarily work in people. "These are animals studies, and moving from the animal to human is always a challenging and not always a successful transition," he says.

About 15,000 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes each year, according to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. There is no known cure, but patients can keep it in check with daily insulin injections.

(Image from iStockphoto/JurgaR.)